Theatre of Cruelty

Releasing our inner animal


Since Freud published his theories of people’s mental behaviour; the influence and consequences of unconscious in our acts and social relationships had became a very controversial theme in several and different contexts.


For example, many artists like the French Antonin Artaud, explored their inner thoughts and based their life and art creations on the idea that truth, without moral masks, should be released from our souls.

 Antonin Artaud spent much time of his life interned in mental hospitals because of his psychological problems. Al along his youth, he was a very introspective person who passed through pessimistic and depressive periods. As I said before, his readings of Freud’s theories, Nietzsche’s nihilistic ideas or even Van Gogh’s neo-impressionist art influenced his work. He even got involved with the surrealistic movement from whom he took the idea of releasing the unconscious as an art expression and as a therapy. [1]


Europe, at that time, was having an artistic revolution. New groups and movements like impressionism, symbolism, surrealism, expressionism, etc. turn around the artistic premises to the point that even the esthetical function of art disappeared. Moreover, society was beginning to feel the proximity of the II World War and observed with impotence the benefits that those who manage the power obtained.


Within that context and ideas, Artaud wrote his “Manifesto”, were he exposed the fundaments of the new “Theatre of Cruelty”. In this document he rejected the treatment of theatre as an evasion method; he proposed to use it as a confrontation therapy whose objective was to remove audience’s emotions. For achieving it, he proposed the use of grotesque elements, rare sounds, changes in lighting, old costumes, violent movements and language, etc… [2]


Every spectacle will contain a physical and objective element, perceptible to all. Cries, groans, apparitions, surprises, theatricalities of all kinds, magic beauty of costumes taken from certain ritual models; …rare notes of music, colours of objects, …masks, effigies yards high, sudden changes of light, the physical action of light which arouses sensations of heat and cold, etc [3]


Body language was very important because he wanted his actors to transmit feelings or ideas in a metaphoric way; almost without speaking.

Evidently, cruelty was the main element in every spectacle, and by cruelty he meant a very violent representation of reality; because life itself was cruel. So he intended to transmit everyday situations in an exaggerated way so audience go out of their desensitization and understand their helplessness in front of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy power.[4] 


The cruelty that Artaud names his theatre after is not the common and vulgar physical definition of cruelty, at least not exclusively; it is creating a spectacle that, because of the state of degenerationhe thinks we have fallen into, must by necessity be so excruciatingly powerful as to wake us up from our slumber and give us a new understanding of what it is to be alive. It is a methapysical cruelty.[5]


He and his friend R. Vitrac founded the “Alfred Jarry Theatre” with the aim of performing Avant-garde plays. In it, he performed the best example of cruelty theatre written by himself: “The Cenci”[6]


Written in a style meant to overwhelm the audience’s moral preconceptions, The Cenci dramatizes the torture that the cruel Count Cenci invoked upon his family; the family’s plot to have him murdered; and the family’s torture and execution by Catholic authorities. [7]


This play was an unsuccessful, so this kind of theatre didn’t have many supporters or followers. But this doesn’t mean that Antonin’s theatre was irrelevant; despite of all, it left its mark and inspired many modern writers like Camus; or Grotowsky, who took some ideas -like avoiding the scene decoration- from “Theatre of Cruelty Manifesto”, to create his own style: “Poor Theatre” [8]


The course of all recent serious theatre in Europe and the Americas can be said to divide into two periods - before Artaud and after Artaud. [9]


[1] Based on information found in:

Gran Enciclopedia Sapiens temática, CD-ROM 9 Lengua y Pensamiento

The Reinvention of the human Face by Donald Gadner. (december 2005)

“Dionysus in Paris”. By Wallace Fowlie. New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1960. p. 203-209.

[2] Based on information found in:

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (december 2005)

Antonin Artaud’ Biography.  Alice in Theaterland webpage: (december 2005)

[3] ARTAUD,Antonin: “Manifesto for an abortive Theatre” from Collected Works 2. London, ed. Calder and Boyars, 1971.

[4] Ibíd

[5] TRIBETT, Mitchel. "Necessary Cruelty", a quotation placed in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (december 2005)

[6] Gran Enciclopedia Sapiens temática, CD-ROM 9 Lengua y Pensamiento

[7] Los Cenci. E-notes webpage (december2005)

[8] Grotowsky. Gran Enciclopedia temática Sapiens, CD-ROM 9 Lengu y Pensamiento

[9] SONTAG, Susan. Quotation placed in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (december 1005)







The Reinvention of the human Face by Donald Gadner.


Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Los Cenci. E-notes webpage


Jerzy Grotowski and Antonin Artaud: Between Heaven and Hell. By Rick Segreda


Manifesto in clear language by Antonin Artaud. Roger Vitral


Antonin Artaud, el más grande entre los malditos del pasado siglo (XXIV). By Javier Membra. Periódico “El Mundo”


The Internet and Theatre Styles. By Justin Cash. Theatre links


Antonin Artaud’ Biography.  Alice in Theaterland





ARTAUD,Antonin: “Manifesto for an abortive Theatre” from Collected Works 2. London, ed. Calder and Boyars, 1971.





Gran Enciclopedia Sapiens Temática. CD-ROM 9, Lengua y Pensamiento





Academic year 2005/2006
© a.r.e.a./Dr.Vicente Forés López
© Ivonne Pamela Landázuri
Universitat de Valčncia Press